The green flag has dropped for the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, signaling a new start under new ownership. The details have been ironed out and the paperwork signed, completing the takeover by a motorsports-focused investor group that plans to improve and expand the offerings at the Chandler, Arizona, driving academy, where racers and enthusiasts, teens, police officers and many others come to hone their driving skills. Two major hurtles were cleared before the May 17 completion of the legal documents that sealed the deal – the lease with the Gila River Indian Community for the land the school occupies and, most crucially, the continued agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which since 2015 has supplied Dodge SRT and Fiat cars that students use at the school. “We have been waiting for this moment,” said Bruce Belser, the new chief executive of the business. “Not just us as the owners or the board of directors but the employees and a lot of people we have talked to in the community, who are excited about going forward and not only reestablishing the school but growing it and making it more influential than it was in the past.” Chief instructor Mike McGovern, who has been with the school for more than 30 years, said he feels as if a weight has been lifted. “Right now, it’s almost a sigh of relief,” McGovern said. “The new owners are great people and they’re excited about it and we’re all excited about it, so we’re all looking forward to the future, and all the potentials that are there, that this school can be great again.” Besler and his partners, co-owners Jeff Hunter and Pat Velasco, comprise a business entity called Stig Investments, which in true motorsport fashion is named for the anonymous race driver on the original Top Gear automotive program. Besler, Velasco and their wives had been through Bondurant courses and were impressed with the operation, the chief executive added, and decided to acquire the school after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October. Stig Investments bought the school for $1.675 million. The acquisition of the Bondurant school has been a lengthy process, Belser acknowledged. The investors became involved in December, he said, and after months of complex diligence and negotiations, finally got the job done. “It was long,” he said. “It was a relief (to complete the sale) last Friday.” The school was owned by champion driver Bob Bondurant, who started it in 1968 in California after injuries from a crash ended his racing career. Neither Bondurant, 85, nor his wife, Pat, will be involved with the school going forward, although his name will stay on the marquee. The school has been in operation throughout the financial mayhem, and the classes and corporate events are ongoing, Belser said. For the time being, the programs will continue as they were before, he added. The team of instructors, technicians and other employees remains on the job, he added, and are deserving of praise after the past difficult months, even when at times it seemed doubtful the school would survive.
“Even when they were having financial problems, the instruction and the curriculum and the experience of the customers and students were always superb,” Belser said. “And so the basics of the school at this point, we’re not going to change. ”Much work needs to be done to the facilities, Belser said, including track repaving and roof repairs to the buildings, for which the new owners are prepared to spend several million dollars. The repaving of the main track will take several weeks and will be completed during the summer months when attendance drops off anyway because of the hot weather at the school, which is located just south of Phoenix. McGovern’s skill and professionalism have been key to the success of the school and will continue going forward, Belser noted, adding that McGovern has gone beyond the call of duty in helping to maintain the facilities, as well as maintaining relations with Fiat Chrysler. “At this point, I am chief instructor,” McGovern said, “and I’ve also sort of taken on operations manager. I’m doing whatever it takes to get things done. I’ve done landscaping and I’ve worked on cars. “I make sure we have enough fuel, and I’ve been sort of liaison with FCA Dodge.” The FCA people are enthusiastic about the new school ownership, he said. “FCA has been super supportive during this journey,” he said. “I can’t say enough about them, and I think they’re also very excited about the new team.” With the FCA agreement, the school will continue using Dodge SRT performance cars, the Hellcat and the Demon, to instruct new owners of those cars – a perk for buyers of SRT cars – as well for general students and for corporate events. Fiat 124 sports cars and 500 Abarth coupes are also on hand for teaching those new owners the finer points of driving them. Sadly, Dodge SRT Vipers will be going away since the automaker stops making them after this model year. McGovern said another entity that deserves credit for helping the school to survive its financial turmoil is the Indian community. “Gila River Indian Community, that’s another team that really stood by the school,” McGovern said. “During that period of time, they could have easily closed the door and said, ‘We’re done with you.’ “But they want to see the Bondurant school on their facility and they want to see it successful. And I believe that they really like the Stig team. So, thumbs up to them for sticking by us and getting these other guys on board to take the Bondurant School into the future.” Looking ahead, the school is laying the groundwork to add more driving instructors as needed, he said. But for now, the dust is still settling after the crazy stress of the past few months. “It’s been quite the journey,” McGovern said. “It’s like, how did we make it through? But we did.”